Sunday, March 6, 2011

Weekend Wonders: Tarsier (Tarsius spp.)

From Tarsier UK

It has been a while since I highlighted a unique mammal, so today I will introduce the tarsier (Tarsius spp.), a tiny primate native to southeast Asia.  The first thing anyone notices about these arboreal creatures is their enormous eyes -- each eyeball is actually as large as the tarsier's brain!  These very large eyes are advantageous to this nocturnal predator, helping them to detect prey at night when they hunt.  Tarsiers are the only extant entirely carnivorous primate.  Although primarily insectivores, they will prey upon birds, snakes, lizards, and bats.  The hind limbs of the tarsier are very long, with extremely elongated tarsus bones in the feet (hence the origin of their name).  Since tarsiers are strictly arboreal, these long limbs allow them to jump easily from tree to tree, and they have even been known to catch birds in flight thanks to their remarkable jumping ability.  They also have an extremely flexible neck which can turn almost 360 degrees, and very long digits with pads that help them move effortlessly through the trees.  Their fur is short, soft, and velvety, and usually buff, beige, or ochre in color.  Tarsiers give birth to single offspring, and are solitary or social in nature depending upon the species.  More information on tarsiers can be found here.

The tarsier is a very shy animal, and human contact often results in their death within a few months.  They have never established successful breeding colonies in captivity, possibly due to their special dietary requirements.  Although more widespread in the past, all living tarsier species are now found only on certain southeast Asian islands.  One species, the Siau Island tarsier (Tarsius tumpara) is listed as one of "The World's 25 Most Endangered Primates".  Efforts are being made to focus attention on the tarsier and to protect this shy little primate from extinction by creating sanctuaries and preventing habitat destruction, but as in all such cases it will be an uphill battle.

Even though these rather bizarre-looking creatures with their huge, staring eyes remind me of the human mutant in Episode 25 of "The Outer Limits" (that episode scared me silly when I was a child!), I find them irresistible and would be saddened to see them disappear forever.  Let's hope that the efforts to save them are not in vain!

Tarsier skull by The Bone Room
By x-ray delta one

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